In 2001, when Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes introduced Asia’s first low-cost airline, AirAsia, by purchasing a failing two-plane carrier for less than $1, it was the perfect time and place. The region’s economic ascent was raising millions of families each year into a new middle class that was eager to travel. Governments from Malaysia to China were building modern international terminals and more runways and often welcomed upstarts to help draw business travelers and tourists. And in most of Southeast Asia—a group of 11 countries with 25,000 islands spread over an area larger than NorthAmerica—air travel was the easiest and often the only way to get around.
Other entrepreneurs followed, and by 2018 lowcost airlines had half of the region’s rapidly expanding market. Before the coronavirus pandemic, AirAsia was serving 159 cities, and the International Air Transport Association estimated the number of passengers in the Asia-Pacific region for all carriers would more than double by 2037, to 3.9 billion.
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